resident Muhammadu Buhari, yesterday, declared that he had the right to hold political meetings anywhere in the Presidential Villa, as there was no law that barred him from exercising such freedom in Nigeria.
The President, who was responding to criticisms trailing his decision to hold the virtual National Executive Council (NEC) meeting of his party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), in the Council Chamber of the Presidential Villa, said no one could dictate to him where to hold meetings in the seat of power.
Buhari had, last Thursday, held a high level meeting of his party in the Council Chamber, an expansive hall where the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meetings, the highest administrative organ of the national government, meets every Wednesday to deliberate on key policies and programmes.
Hosting the meeting in a hall which parades the full compliments of the President’s paraphernalia of office including his seal, national flag as well as the flags of the Nigeria Armed Forces, had attracted a lot of criticisms from a cross section of Nigerians.
Leading the pack was the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), the main opposition party in Nigeria, which described it as a desecration of the Office of the President.
The PDP said it was wrong to use the hallowed chamber for a meeting that could have been held at the party’s secretariat.
Senior Special Assistant to the President on Media and Publicity, Garba Shehu, who conveyed the position of the Presidency on the controversy has, however, dismissed the objections of critics.
He said: “It is necessary that we put records in their correct perspective concerning the recent meeting held by the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the APC, which has, unfortunately drawn criticism due to lack of understanding.
“The stubborn opinion held by the critics of the administration is that President Muhammadu Buhari had called a political meeting in the “hallowed” chamber of the Federal Executive Council (FEC), as if there is a law that says the President is barred from holding meetings in certain sections of the vast Presidential Villa.
“Since the President lives in the Villa, no one can, legally speaking, choose or dictate to him where he can sit to hold meetings. So, what is wrong in the President presenting himself before a camera and a TV screen in a digital conference at a given location within the Villa?
“Just for the sake of the argument, this meeting, we say emphatically, was not convened at the Council Chamber. It was virtual, not a physical meeting.
“Why was it a virtual meeting? The idea was to observe social distancing in view of health concerns. Knowing how small the conference hall of the party is, social distancing would only have been observed in the breach.
“President Buhari was billed to address the meeting from his office (just any of his offices) and chose the Council Chamber where the digital facilities are located, and other members, including the bulk of NEC members, state party leaders and members of the National Assembly were all linked using video conference calls. You saw them all on TV.”
Shehu acknowledged that some governors and leaders of the National Assembly joined the President at the meeting, but insisted that the meeting was largely a virtual one and did not deserve the level of controversy it had generated across the country.
“Yes, it is true that governors and leaders of the National Assembly joined the President from the Chamber from where he spoke. But the larger body of the members in attendance were all connected via video calls.
“Do not forget that these are not the normal times in view of the COVID-19 circumstances in which we have found ourselves. President Buhari placed health and safety above courtesy to the party by not going to its headquarters.
“In the end, a wise thing had been done because the President wants to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus disease,” he said.
In the meantime, the PDP has dismissed the defence put up by the Presidency and advised President Buhari to tender an apology to Nigerians over the incident.
National Publicity Secretary of the PDP, Kola Ologbondiyan, said that rather than arguing over whether the meeting was physical or virtual, the Presidency ought to admit its mistakes and seek reprieve from Nigerians.
The party reminded the president that the media and the public space were awash with photographs and videos of APC leaders physically in attendance inside the hallowed executive chambers where he as father of the nation presided over a partisan meeting.
“It is therefore shocking that the Buhari presidency can state in denial that ‘this meeting, we say emphatically, was not convened at the Council Chamber. It was virtual, not a physical meeting.’
“This is even when the world watched Mr. Presi dent addressing the applauding APC leaders, in addition to the Attorney General of the Federation and Minister of Justice (AGF), Abubakar Malami, physically administering oath of office on the Chairman of APC National Caretaker Committee, Mai Buni, on the floor of the FEC chamber.
“It is a fact before Nigerians that the meeting was physical and only virtual to the extent that some members of the APC NEC members were linked via conference call,” PDP stated.
It referred the Presidency to reports already in the media where the AGF admitted administering oath of office to the Chairman of the APC Caretaker Committee; an event that took place on the floor of the FEC Chamber.
“Such a denial by President Buhari’s handlers has further exposed the decadence in the APC and the Buhari presidency. What Nigerians expected of the Buhari presidency and the APC, was to tender an unreserved apology to the nation and desist from further desecration of our national values and official conduct requirements,” the party said.
The Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, had at the weekend risen in defence of his own actions in respect of the controversial meeting.
Malami declared that there was no legal impediment on him in relation to administration of oath on the new leadership of the APC being a lawyer, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, notary public and a legal practitioner.
Malami said working towards the entrenchment of democracy and democratic culture was not only a desirable responsibility, but a constitutional duty.
He explained that as the Attorney General of the Federation, he exercises dual functions inclusive of that of Minister of Justice which is a political and advisory function.
“A federation is an embodiment of the governance inclusive of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary with a possible expansion to accommodate private, corporate and associated entities. Within that context, it will not be out of place for an Attorney-General of the Federation to administer an oath on anyone inclusive of leadership of any political party whether he belongs to it or not.
“Within the context of the other consideration, a lawyer, a judge and indeed a private legal practitioner and a commissioner for oath are recognized statutorily as people vested with the power to administer an oath. Attorney General of the Federation that has fallen within that circle is never to be an exception.
“The fundamental question that begs for an answer remains whether there exist any legal impediment on Attorney-General of the Federation and Minister of Justice in relation to administration of oath being a lawyer, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria and a legal practitioner,” he said.
Malami, therefore, renewed his commitment in discharging constitutional responsibilities of upholding the democratic culture and compliance to the rule of law.